The Good Life

Coming Up Aces

The hole in one is golf's version of the promised land, but only the lucky will ever feel the joy of holing out a tee shot
| By Jeff Williams | From Michael Jordan, July/August 2005
Coming Up Aces

Whether you are Tiger Woods or Ernie Els or Annika Sorenstam, whether you are a scratch player or a 20-handicapper, whether you play at Augusta National or Augusta Municipal, one achievement in golf is within reach of everyone who plays the game—a hole in one.

You don't need $2,500 lessons from Butch Harmon, $1,500 clubs from Callaway or a $425 greens fee at Pebble Beach to make a hole in one. What you need is a club, a ball, a tee and a green and that one instant of luck, that one moment when the laws of physics and metaphysics converge. And there is your ball, flying, bouncing, rolling as if by magic into the hole to complete the most glorious of all golf shots, the ace.

Just ask the King of Aces how special holes in one are. "They never get old and are always thrilling," says Mancil Davis, the owner of Mancil Davis Enterprises in Houston and a member of the PGA of America. Davis is credited with 50 holes in one, the most by any professional. "The greatest thing about them is you don't have to be Tiger or Annika to make one. Most people who play this game will never shoot par, most of them will never break 80, and a lot of them will never even break 90. But no matter what your ability, you have a chance to make an ace. I think that's the neatest thing about it. It's not like everyone is equal in making an ace, but everyone has the chance."

The National Hole-in-One Association, a private company that provides insurance for holes in one and other event promotions, has calculated that the chances of an everyday player making a hole in one on a par 3 are 1 in 12,600 swings. The chances of a PGA Tour player are about 1 in 3,000 swings. Since 1980, when more accurate record keeping began, 735 holes in one have been attained in PGA Tour events, including Trevor Immelman's on the 16th hole in the Masters this past April.

While there is no way to determine how many aces are made by Americans each year, the Hole-in-One Association, which used to register aces, estimated that it would get between 12,000 and 15,000 registrations per year, and that was probably 10 percent of the holes in one made. If 150,000 aces are being made annually in America, then more than 400, on average, are being made every day. So just because you haven't made one yet, don't despair. When your 12,600th swing on a par 3 comes along, the odds will be on your side.

Some golfers seem to have shortened the odds beyond reason. Californian Norman Manley, an amateur player, has made 59 aces, including back-to-back aces on the short par-4 seventh and eighth holes of the Del Valle Country Club in Saugus, California, on August 30, 1964. Consider this incredible fact: Mike Hilyer, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound behemoth of a man, had 10 aces on par-4 holes in a six-year span beginning in 1994. During that time, he didn't record a single ace on a par 3 and was last known to be in search of his first one.

Mancil Davis knew his odds were short while he was still a kid. Growing up in the west Texas town of Odessa, famous for oil and its high school football team, Davis gave Odessans something else to talk about when, in a year's time over 1965 and 1966, he made eight aces. Three of them came in a week, five in a month. All this at ages 11 and 12, and his feats earned him an appearance on CBS television in New York. Not all of them were perfect shots. "I hit a 3-iron 30 yards to the right of the green, it hit a mesquite tree and bounced left, hit a sprinkler head and bounced on the green and went in the hole," recalls Davis. "Maybe the most unusual thing about it was hitting a tree with a golf ball in west Texas."

Paula Rohr had been playing golf for 10 years when she stepped to the tee of the 16th hole of the North Hills Country Club on suburban Long Island outside of New York City. The year before, she had won a golf trip to Ireland in a raffle at a non-tournament event. On this summer day in 2002, Rohr, a private banker, was playing in the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants' annual outing, and on the 16th hole she was rather more focused on buying raffle tickets. Her 3-wood shot to the elevated green seemed to be a good one and on line, but she couldn't see the ball on the green's surface. "I was so busy buying raffle tickets—where if you got the ball on the green, you got an extra raffle ticket—that I wasn't really aware what was going on," she said then. When her group got to the green, the teenager hired to monitor the shots nonchalantly told her that a ball had gone into the cup. Her ball. She didn't win the raffle, but she won $25,000 for the ace.

The hole in one elicited many high fives, hugs and congratulations, not to mention a large element of surprise. It's not surprising, however, that the emotional impact of a hole in one on an amateur differs from that of a professional. For the amateur, it's the fulfillment of a dream, a lifelong bragging right, the apex of what is otherwise a rather undistinguished career. "If you hit enough shots at the pin, you are going to make some," says Champions Tour player Gibby Gilbert, who has 21 aces in tournament play. "You hit balls at this level, you have a better chance at it. I mean, heck, we hit tons of good shots that don't go in. There's still a bunch of luck involved. I get more of a thrill out of holing a wedge shot from the fairway. There was one year where I holed out six out here. You are standing in the fairway, really trying to make that shot. I don't think you stand on a par-3 tee very often thinking you are going to make it."

Pro players love to tell the story of Claude Harmon and Ben Hogan playing together in the 1947 Masters.

"You know the one about Harmon and Hogan....?" says Curtis Strange.

"The one that always got me was Harmon and Hogan....," says Charles Coody.

"That story about Hogan and Harmon was a beauty," says Dave Stockton.

The story varies slightly from player to player, but here is the gist. Hogan and Harmon were playing the terribly tough little 12th hole at Augusta National. The 12th has been a pro's bugaboo since the Masters began there in 1934. Its shallow green sits on a ledge above Rae's Creek. Shots short go into the creek; shots long go into rough, pine straws and even a few azaleas. The wind swirls there at the bottom of Amen Corner. It's a hole that every player wants to make par on and get out of there. Hogan, one of the great ball strikers of all time, impressively put his tee shot 12 feet from the hole. Harmon then holed out his shot for an ace to a few cheers from the small gallery that attended the Masters in the pre—Arnold Palmer era. As the pair walked to the green, Hogan said nothing. After Harmon extracted his ball, Hogan said nothing. He was too intent on lining up his putt. He stroked it in the cup for a birdie. On the 13th tee, Hogan approached Harmon for what the latter presumed would be congratulations for his ace.

"You know," said Hogan. "I think that's only the second time I've birdied that hole." Enough said.

While the Masters crowds of the post-Palmer era have likewise been enthusiastic about a player's momentous shot, they also realize it for what it is, just one shot. "In 1972, the year after I won the Masters, I aced the sixth hole at Augusta," says Coody. "When I did that, I was high up on the leaderboard, the defending champion, and had just made a great shot, so I got a whole big gallery following me down the seventh hole. I hit my approach in the front bunker there. They had just put new sand in the bunkers and it was pretty fluffy. I took three shots to get out and two putts for a triple-bogey seven. By the time I teed off on eight, I had no gallery. That's what I remember about my hole in one."

While the game of golf was being played in the early fifteenth century, the first recorded hole in one is attributed to Young Tom Morris, son of the legendary pro at the St. Andrews Golf Links. With about as much fanfare as a bank statement, a newspaper report recorded Morris's ace on the eighth hole of the Prestwick Golf Club during the 1868 British Open. From there, skip ahead by more than 100 years to the U.S. Open, to a day heaven-blessed for aces.

The sixth hole at the Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, turned into a funnel on June 15, 1989, during the first round of the U.S. Open. The pin was set at the front right of the green, with a slope behind it and to the left. It was playing at about 160 yards. Doug Weaver, Jerry Pate, Nick Price and Mark Wiebe aced the hole between 8:35 and 10 a.m. "The balls were just feeding into the hole," says Pate. "Hale Irwin hit one before me that almost went in. It was the kind of pin placement that allowed the ball to come from several different lines and still get to the hole. When you looked at it, you knew there was a chance you could make it with just a decent shot. I don't know why they put it there, but there were a lot of happy players, and it gave the fans a heckuva thrill." In 1995, Italian golfer Costantino Rocca made an ace on the same hole with the cup in the same position during the Ryder Cup matches won by Rocca and the European team.

For Mancil Davis, standing on any given par-3 tee is like standing on the sixth at Oak Hill. He thinks he can make it. He can visualize the flight of the ball and its bounce and roll on the green. He can see it dropping into the cup. "There's a different feeling I get on a par-3 tee with, say, a 6-iron in my hand as opposed to standing in the fairway of a par 4 with the same club," says Davis. "Golf Digest hooked me up with electronic monitoring equipment years ago to look at my brain waves and see what was happening when I was on a par-3 tee. An expert determined that my brain waves were like that of a player looking at a 50-foot putt rather than someone about to hit an iron shot. The player with the 50-foot putt had some expectation that he might make it. That's the way I felt about hitting my tee shots. I have 50 official holes in one, but I have several others that have come in my outings or in very casual play. I don't know why I am that way, but I'm sure glad that I am."

Champions Tour pro Dave Stockton has 26 aces in his career, not all of them in professional tournaments. He remembers the first one vividly, as much for what happened afterward as how the ball went in the hole. "I was a teenager and it was Hole in One Day in Southern California, which is a charitable deal. It was at the Lake Arrowhead Country Club. The guy before me almost holes his shot, then I hit a 7-iron and the ball rolls into the cup. There's a guy up at the green who's there to verify shots, and he actually fell off his stool. But you know, afterward my father, who had never had a hole in one, didn't even say, 'Nice shot.' "

In the 1980s, Stockton notched one of his more unlikely holes in one, a badly hit shot on the par-3 15th hole at Cypress Point. He was playing in a corporate outing, a lucrative specialty of Stockton's over the years. It was a fun day, but he didn't like hitting poor shots no matter what the circumstance. As the shot flew toward the right side of the green, with the pin on the left, Stockton grunted a bit in frustration. But as if to prove that old golf adage that you shouldn't start whining until the ball stops rolling, Stockton's ball spun left, down the slope, rolled 40 feet and went into the hole. The next hole at Cypress Point is the famously picturesque 16th, 224 yards over the Pacific Ocean. Stockton's 3-wood was right on line, but stopped 10 feet short of the cup. "Now how would have that been, to have back-to-back holes in one on the 15th and 16th holes at Cypress Point," says Stockton. "I guess it shows how much luck is involved in these things. I hit one shot lousy and it goes in, and I hit one shot really good and it doesn't."

There are no complete, official records of holes in one. What exists is sort of an agreed-upon history. The Californian Manley's 59 aces are considered the most ever. Davis's 50 aces are deemed the most by a professional. The late Art Wall is believed to have the most of any PGA Tour player, 46, when he added up all his aces in competition and other play. Mike Hilyer's 10 aces on par-4 holes just has to be that record. And the longest ace ever is generally attributed to Michael Crean on the 517-yard par-5 ninth hole of the Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in Colorado in 2002, though there were no witnesses to the feat and therefore may always be in doubt. But according to the Rocky Mountain News, the ball was found in the cup. Nobody in Crean's foursome actually saw the ball go into the hole (it was too far away). Also, nobody else on the course witnessed the ball going in. While some believe it was a neighborhood kid playing a joke on Crean by picking up his ball and placing it in the hole, another theory is that his shot hit a series of stone yardage markers that sit flush to the ground. With the help of these stone markers (which are 200, 150 and 100 yards from the green) and a 30 mph tailwind, it just might have happened for real. Still, nobody saw it happen.

The loudest ace ever had to be Tiger Woods's on the 16th hole of the TPC at Starpass, during the 1997 Phoenix Open. He did it in front of about 10,000 beer-fueled fans on a hole designed to accommodate a huge gallery. The roar was so deafening that Woods's ears were ringing. The most significant ace in a major championship belongs to David Toms, who holed a 5-wood from 243 yards on the 15th hole of the Atlanta Athletic Club in the third round of the 2001 PGA Championship, and went on to win the title the next day. The most media-friendly was Arnold Palmer's second consecutive ace on the third hole of the TPC at Avenel in 1986. The first ace, only the gallery saw. When he showed up on the tee the next day, there was a camera crew. He told them they were a day late. Then he holed his second straight 5-iron shot, and the crew had its 6 o'clock highlight.

Hal Sutton, the former U.S. Ryder Cup captain, is the PGA Tour's active leader in holes in one with 10. "You know, we practice all the time to get our shots on target, to make ourselves better," says Sutton. "But it still comes as a shock to me when a ball goes in the hole. There's this feeling of euphoria, that everything you've worked for you've achieved in one shot. Now, it's just one shot, but it's also an eagle, so you can make up some serious ground with it, too."

The ace Sutton remembers most occurred at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill tournament in 1985. And he remembers it for what he didn't accomplish. "They were giving away a $1 million bonus for making a hole in one on the 17th hole on Sunday," says Sutton. "I made mine on Thursday."

The most lucrative ace belongs to Lee Trevino, who holed one for a million bucks in a made-for-television par-3 shootout at Treetops Resort in Michigan in 2001. Trevino also made a hole in one in the 1987 Skins Game competition. He remembers playing in the Philippines and watching a player hit a shot on a par 3 that appeared to be going into a greenside bunker. The player got so mad that he snapped the club in two over his knee. The ball caromed off the back lip of the bunker and rolled straight into the hole, with the player standing on the tee holding both parts of the broken club.

There are no specific rules of golf that pertain to a certified hole in one; it's treated like any other golf shot. The United States Golf Association has issued some guidelines for it, as they pertain to competitive situations.

A shot is considered a hole in one: (a) If made during a round of at least nine holes, except that a hole in one made during a match should be acceptable even if the match ends before the stipulated round is over.

(b) If a player plays only one ball. In a practice round of golf, a hole in one should not be acceptable if a player is playing more than one ball. (c) If attested by someone acceptable to the tournament committee. (d) If made at a hole with a temporary tee and/or putting green in use, even if the committee did not specifically define the teeing ground with tee markers. (e) If made in a "scramble" competition, which is played as follows: A side comprises four players. Each member of a side plays from the teeing ground, the best drive is selected, each member plays a second shot from where the best drive is located, and so on.

Jim Tingley, a former New York insurance executive, has always played by the rules of golf, and has been a rules official himself. His 19 career aces are well attested. It's the 65-year duration of them that is most impressive. He got his first ace as a 16-year-old at the Oak Ridge Golf Club in New Jersey. He got his last as an 81-year-old at his home club, the Nassau Country Club on Long Island, where he has been a member for 47 years. It was his fifth ace on the fifth hole and his ninth overall at the club. Now 86, Tingley has found it physically difficult to play recently, but he's not without motivation. "It would be great to have an even 20," he says.

Even the King of Aces, who turned 51 in April, is still in search of another, his last coming in 1999. "For most of my life, my ace total has exceeded my years on the planet," says Davis. "That's a pretty big goal for me."

Then there are those of us waiting for the first ball to drop. Until then, just keep thinking about that 12,600th swing coming up on a par 3, and don't start whining until the ball stops rolling.

Jeff Williams is a sportswriter for Newsday on Long Island.


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